Identity Beneath Layers

Last week I spoke about living from the inside out. This is the journey inward, to be in touch with our inmost self, who we truly are. Then it is the journey outward, finding a way to express that self in words, actions, and way of life. Of course, it is essential to see ourselves not as an isolated self-contained entity, but as a relational, communal and social being. When we speak to another, for example, it should be not be an inflicting of our issues on another, but a sharing and even entrusting aspects of our thoughts, feelings, etc., to another. It is best done within a listening context, within a tuning in to another. The one to whom we speak should affect what we say and how we say it.

A further aspect of this process is to discern who we are beneath our thoughts and feelings, who is the “I” that has these. There is a tendency in our society either to deny certain feelings or to unleash them thoughtlessly. As Richard Rohr has said so perceptively, suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. As mentioned before, there is also the need to allow ourselves to feel all our feelings, but in a safe place. This can be by ourselves, or as shared with a trustworthy other person. Following this step, it is important to attempt to name our feelings as truthfully and accurately as possible. For example, grief may be looked upon as the experience of a deeply felt incompleteness, made permanent by separation or death. In another instance, an unfaced fear or anxiety may lie behind much external arrogance or domination..

A further direction, I believe, is the task of not identifying with our thoughts or feelings, not seeing them as our identity, as who we are. I recall, in teaching, a common reaction of a student to a low mark on a test or assignment. Often they might say, “I’m no good.” Instead of saying to themselves that in one particular part of a course, within a whole program, and within a rather small part of a total lifetime, things did not go as well as expected, as hoped for, or as possible. This is an instance of how, for a time at least, the person’s identity was linked to one incident.

The question them becomes, if we detach our identity from one particular feeling, then who is the person who has, but is not reducible to, that feeling. Feelings are layered, and as we allow ourselves to feel one feeling, another may emerge beneath it. The second feeling may be at least a little closer to the person beneath all the feelings. The many feelings may then come to be seen as separate from the identity of the one beneath and behind them. We are more than and deeper than whatever feelings we have. They tend to shift and pass away, but a core self remains, who need not be trapped in any such feelings.

Another approach is to ask who is the speaker that names us with that feeling. On the societal level, there is a tendency to impose an identity, and make our sense of worth depend on externals–our possessions, our prestige, our power. Much advertising seems to suggest that we need to hide who we are beneath these externals. It suggests that we need to cover up who we are and, consequently, implies that who we are is of little value, so that it needs a disguise.

The question then becomes what we can lose without losing our self. In a class many years ago, an elderly woman told how she and her husband came home one evening to see their house totally engulfed in flames. All their possessions, including family heirlooms and photographs, were destroyed. As they stood there weeping, they said simply but with a profound love: “At least we still have each other.” All externals can be lost, but who we are and the love that flows from who we are remains.

I recall as well a radio program from years ago, named at that time with the non-inclusive title, Man Alive. A woman was interviewed who had been born with several physical issues and who was later disfigured by a fire. She had since acquired a graduate degree in psychology and worked as a counsellor. Her striking words were: “I am not what you see.” None of us is what is seen on the outside. The exception may be when the inner radiance finds some outward expression. I remember seeing a photograph of a 100-year old Inuit woman. While she had wrinkles on wrinkles, there was no other way to describe her except as beautiful.

These examples reflect what I have said week after week. Beneath all else, even if we or others fail to see it, or even if we deny or betray that worth in self or others, there is the fundamental core of value or sacredness that ever remains. It has the quality of a gift insofar as it goes with being a child of the universe, a human being, and a unique person. The challenge is to recognize and name all else within and around us, yet to see our identity in that sacred core self, and to try to leave its imprint in ever widening circles radiating from that core self

Wayne Muller stresses that we must be careful how we name ourselves. If we think we are fragile and broken, we will live a fragile and broken life. If we believe we are strong and wise, we will live with enthusiasm and courage. The way we name ourselves colours the way we live. He adds: “I am certain these names reveal little of our true nature. Beneath the stories, beneath the diagnoses, these are all children of spirit, beings fully equipped with inner voices of strength and wisdom, intimations of grace and light. … Regardless of the shape of the sorrow or victory or grief or ecstasy we have been given, there is a potent inner luminosity that is never extinguished and that is alive in us in this instant.”

May you be in tune with all your feelings, aware of the quality of your relationships, discerning of the identity imposed by the societal culture. Yet may you know ever more deeply the sacred core of who you truly are. And may your find ever more ways to live from and share that core with others and our world.

Norman King
April 03, 2023